Van Niekerk determined to chase his dream

‘I’ve gone back to fighting for my dream from scratch, says world champion Wayde van Niekerk.

World champion Wayde van Niekerk says he has gone back to fighting for his dreams following a devastating knee injury in a charity tag rugby match in 2017.

“It was more mental than physical,” the Olympic 400m champion and world record holder said as he charts his slow recovery from a devastating knee injury that threatened to end his career.

Van Niekerk had just won another gold medal in the 400m at the world championships in London, as well as silver in the 200m, and he looked ready to fulfill Usain Bolt’s prediction that he would become the sport’s next superstar.

His fame was built on a brilliant performance in the 2016 Olympic final in Rio when he ran the 400m in 43.03sec and shattered the world record Michael Johnson had held since 1999.

Van Niekerk’s injury was crushing because he missed the next two years, while his subsequent comeback was derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Obviously with an injury like that, you need to be very patient when it comes to your physical recovery. But mentally you think the same way you’ve always thought. You want to be back on the track, you’re ready to challenge your records, you want to compete against the best in the world but physically that’s no longer your reality. So mentally I had to make a big shift. It took a while but I believe I made the right decisions to get myself in the best position I can be at the Olympic Games later this year,” he told the CNN in a recent interview.

Van Niekerk, who is 28, made a startling claim that he might run 400m faster than he did at his peak.

“I think I can,” he says. “I’ve shown a lot of positive signs in the training of being faster than before and I’ve matured way more mentally. But I know it’s one thing doing it in training and a different thing back on the track. So it’s really about getting that consistency in terms of being a competitor.”

The notion that Van Niekerk might run the 400m under 43 seconds has been much spoken about before and quizzed whether he believed he could run faster, he said, “I believe so.”

While the Bloemfontein runner has taken big step by moving to the United States to advance his career, the question around his comeback has been the talk of the town especially after such an invigorating injury.

On his way to recovery, Van Niekerk revealed that a number of athletes such as English Gardner who endured a similar injury reached out to him.

“A lot of elite athletes who suffered similar injuries were able to come back and compete at their highest level therefore I strongly believe the same can and will happen with me,” he noted.

At his first international meeting since his injury, in Switzerland last September, Van Niekerk recalls: “My biggest challenge was just to deal with the nerves and internal doubts and fears. If we look at my last hundred meters in that race I had the speed back but mentally I was in a different space. I had to isolate myself for 26 days before that and there were a lot of nerves, stress, anxiety. But I went out there and released that weight off my shoulders. I felt much better and that led to a few more races in South Africa.”

Van Niekerk has just become an ambassador for Laureus, an organisation that strives to use the power of sport to overcome violence, discrimination, and disadvantage with over 200 programmes in 40 countries.

South Africa is key to this strategy and, as one of their most famous sportsmen, Van Niekerk’s story echoes these aims as he revisits communities where hope is often dented.

“It’s amazing what Laureus is doing in teaching the next generation what sport can give you and how it can change your life. And the way they are using people you look up to is inspiring. At the beginning of my career, when I had the opportunity to meet Usain Bolt, it helped me to dream bigger,” he said, adding his sporting focus is fixed on the Tokyo Olympics.

The delay must have helped because last year would have been too soon for Van Niekerk to defend his Olympic title.

“I wouldn’t say so. I was ready regardless. I think it was more of inconsistency in terms of training and competing that made it difficult and complicated. In track and field, the more you race, the more your body improves. Last year we didn’t have that opportunity to put our bodies and minds into an environment where we are competing against the best in the world.

“I believe if I had the competitions that I wanted and needed I would have been ready. Now, everything is slowly but surely starting to open up. So hopefully we can soon start competing and racing again. I will be ready when the gun goes,” added the star.

By: Thapelo Molebatsi